Planting the seed of hi-tech for NT future

THE FUTURE OF FARMING: Kids that are brilliant at consoles are exactly the kid of people farmers need to fly drones and use electronic systems according to Greg Owens from NT Farmers.
THE FUTURE OF FARMING: Kids that are brilliant at consoles are exactly the kid of people farmers need to fly drones and use electronic systems according to Greg Owens from NT Farmers. Contributed

IN LIGHT of the NT Government's launch of a horticultural prospectus for Central Australia in June, Heartbeat has in recent weeks explored the sustainability of horticulture in the region.

The government prospectus aims to grow the industry by attracting new investors.

Avocados were among the possible crops identified as suitable for Tenant Creek, Western Davenport, Ti Tree, Alice Springs and the Great Artesian Basin.

Furthermore, NT Primary Industries Minister Ken Vowles has earmarked $1.55 million over three years to boost jobs and growth as part of the NT Economic Framework.

Plans to establish a regional agricultural hub in Katherine will see the funding used to support a permanent horticultural officer in the town.

Last week, Minister Vowles promised to reduce red tape around "the inflexibility of the Seasonal Worker Program."

But here's the rub: How can an industry dependent on backpackers encourage an Aboriginal role in sustainable plant-based agriculture in the Territory? And will benefits from a Katherine hub flow south to the Ti Tree region anyway? Of interest has been Desert Melons at Ali Curung, where large-scale Aboriginal and Government investment has struggled to produce sustainable employment for local Aboriginals.

Supporters say such change may take generations.

Meanwhile, backpackers harvest the melons and Traditional Owners, now landlords on their holdings, collect rent for the land farmed by others.

Of course, Aboriginal people have every right to be landlords.

But such an arms-length relationship with farming may well be detrimental to remote communities in the long term.

So says Independent member for the NT electorate of Nelson Gerry Wood, who used to grow watermelons himself.

"I ran farms at Daly River and Bathurst Island," he says.

"The problem was you can't get people to work full time.

"You need people who can work seven days a week, as you have to check the crop that needs harvesting that day.

"These sorts of developments are great, but if people think they'll help Aboriginal people take jobs and development then they have to understand it's a 365 days a year job."

Mr Wood points to the past, when many Aboriginal people worked full-time, and blames welfare for dampening incentive for Aboriginal people to work.

"I've been through generations where people had to work because there was no welfare.

"It was only when Mr Whitlam introduced unemployment benefits [that it changed]."

The argument echoes those of outspoken indigenous leader Noel Pearson, who has vowed to break what he calls the "cycle of passive welfare and deepening disadvantage."

"On the Nguiu shire council (Tiwi) I employed over 100 Aboriginal men," says Mr Woods," and we employed everybody who wanted a job.

"We ran into trouble in the 1970s and 80s, when unemployment benefits were introduced."

Mr Wood looks to shire councils for a solution.

"For me it's always been the local councils; in the old days these were the Aboriginal councils, but now the shire council should be the employment agency.

"Not CDEP, it should be a real job with a real pay that reflects the cost of living."

But if horticultural work is to form part of that mix, what might it look like?

Interviewed just before his recent appointment as CEO of NT Farmers, Greg Owens says that whatever it looks like, the business side must come first.

"To have viable employment you have to have viable businesses," says Mr Owens.

"And that comes down to growing systems that can produce product at a profit, [product] that people want to buy.

"That provides the opportunity to engage anybody."

The NT Farmers approach is outlined in its 2016 report Opportunities for Plant Industries in the NT.

Mr Owens says that in addition to harvesting work, NT Farmers will emphasise the many broader roles available within a healthy agriculture sector.

A healthy sector is founded on "growing systems", he says, which include "the soil and water, agronomy, the science tech, but also the labour, training, market supply chain; the whole lot has to work together."

While any one element might be small, he argues, it might nevertheless be the one that's key to unlocking that chain.

"We'd love to encourage everyone that wants to be part of the industry, identify training and employment needs, and to get more locals engaged in making money from our resources."

But that doesn't mean only Katherine and the Top End, for NT Farmers' plans include the Barkly, and places like Ali Curung.

"When you look at agriculture," he says, "there's not that many people involved in the farming component.

"There's a lot more involved in the agribusiness and food side: Providing mechanical support, flying our drones, collecting information.

"My advice is get more training in terms of the technology."

As far as Aboriginal employment, Mr Owens says it is all about partnerships.

"The melons at Ali Curung are fantastic; that's a partnership between traditional owners and a commercial farmer.

"Those jobs exist, the local community members move in and out of those jobs as suits their culture.

"And we're getting a small number of trained tractor drivers and machinery operators, which is a keen shortage in our industry."

Desert Melons generates a product Traditional Owners are "comfortable with", says Mr Owens.

"Trying to get any particular part of our society engaged in agriculture is one of my missions.

"At the Food Futures roadshow, Traditional Owners from Ali Curung were so proud to stand up and say 'this is what our land is being used for'.

"Our successes to date are in having those key relationships, identifying strategic partnerships with local Territory Vietnamese growers, associations like Centrefarm, seasonal worker programs."

Education is similarly vital.

"It's got to be in our schools and in our thinking, we want to find ways that fit.

"For example, the kids that play games and are brilliant at consoles are exactly the kind of people we need to fly drones, operate equipment, program robots, fix the electronics, develop the systems that link satellites and remote sensing data to the tractor in the paddock.

"There's weed recognition software on boom sprays that actually turns the spray on and off as it sees a weed, yielding massive savings in chemicals and time, and is environmentally beneficial.

"That's the future, and that's where we want to engage as many people as possible, to drive the tractors as well as develop the systems. "

Topics:  children future gaming glenn morrison heartbeat horticulture next generation northern territory technology

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